Servicemembers often do not know of methods of redress for wrongs. However, there are many forms of complaint, and one or another may be used for virtually any injustice, wrong, or form of oppression. Servicemembers may make a grievance resulting from:
mistreatment by a superior;
failure to act on a request (such as a request for medical attention or a request for hardship discharge);
unlawfully restricting a servicemember’s rights;
unlawful discrimination or sexual harassment; or,
damage to, or improper seizure of, personal property.
There are several formal methods for requesting redress of grievances, including:
Complaints through the chain of command.
Correspondence with a Member of Congress.
An Inspector General (IG) complaint for instances of fraud, waste, and abuse.
An Equal Opportunity complaint for instances of discrimination or sexual harassment.
An Article 138 (UCMJ) complaint, for instances of specific abuse, discriminatory practices of a superior officer, or where the command is not following regulations.
An Article 139 (UCMJ) complaint, where personal property is taken or destroyed.
Petition the Board for Correction of Military Records to change adverse items or make other corrections in a member’s official record.
In addition to the above actions, any person subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice may request that criminal charges be brought against anyone who violates the UCMJ, even if he or she is under charges, under arrest, or in confinement. However, the military command will decide whether to proceed with prosecution.
Formal complaint procedures can be supplemented by raising hell: using the media, instigating political pressure from civil rights groups or other outside political groups, and generating support in the local civilian community (call the GI Rights Hotline for help in identifying helpful groups to work with).
The measures for requesting a redress of grievances are limited in their effectiveness. Servicemembers are hampered by two restrictions civilians do not face:
The Feres Doctrine prevents members from suing their employer (the military) for monetary damages.
No matter how intolerable the situation becomes, servicemembers cannot legally quit their jobs.
In addition, members often feel intimidated into not taking action for fear of reprisals. Such reprisals can take the form of personnel actions taken directly by the commander or more informal retaliation by supervisors and peers, including verbal and physical abuse, which may or may not be condoned by the commander. At public hearings in 1992, military personnel recounted to a NAACP delegation “episodes, not only of reprisal actions, but also of harassment for using the chain-of-command and complaint channels to report racial or gender discrimination and unfair treatment. Few hearing participants reported successful encounters with the [complaints] system.”
There are a few guidelines for communicating complaints, regardless of the avenues used:
All complaints using official complaint procedures are best made in writing using standard military memo format.
The servicemember’s name, rank, Social Security number, and place of assignment must be included, as well as similar information for the offender in the complaint.
Describe each incident that comprises the grievance, list any witnesses present, and include all available documentation.
State what actions must be taken to redress the grievance.
The complaint must, in many circumstances, be timely. If specific time limits for the complaint procedure being used (often 60 or 90 days) are not met, the military is normally not required to investigate the claim.
Documentation is of great importance to any complaint. Do not assume the command or investigator will make a thorough and impartial investigation, and, if at all possible, gather documentation before the complaint is made. In particular, witnesses who might be intimidated can be asked for statements before the command is aware of the complaint, and documents which may be destroyed should be copied before the complaint is made. Keep copies of everything.
All formal methods of complaint also share the same drawback. An evaluation of the complaint, even if it is done outside the member’s chain of command and according to established criteria, is ultimately made within the military. According to a 1994 NAACP report, the “personality and disposition of the commander determines how objectively and fairly the [grievance] process is administered, as well as the nature of any corrective action”.
Complaints made to Members of Congress and the DoD Inspector General, including Equal Opportunity complaints, are protected communications under the Whistleblower Protection Act. The complainant is protected to some extent from adverse actions deemed to be taken in reprisal for their complaint. However, protection is contingent on the military’s interpretation and enforcement of the regulations. A 1994 DoD report indicated that follow-up to measure the effectiveness of corrective action taken or to detect and deter reprisal was documented in only six percent of the equal opportunity cases reviewed.
Whistleblower protection against reprisals is not extended to Article 138 or Article 139 complainants. Protection from reprisals for complainants under these articles can only come from making further complaints. However, if copies of such complaints are sent to a member of Congress, the servicemember may receive protection from reprisals under the Whistleblower Protection Act.
Types of Grievances
Some of the reasons members request redress of grievances include: